The scene opens on the exterior of an Arlington church. It’s a late-summer afternoon and a big group hug of humidity embraces the area in the fading sunlight. After a few seconds, the camera slowly zooms in and we dissolve to the church auditorium, where a gathering of people focus on the words of Gale Nemec.
Nemec regularly goes through several “wardrobe changes” in her career: children’s book author; producer of “The Bea & The Bug,” an interactive multimedia theatrical show about American history; teacher and actor. It’s those last two that are “on stage” this night in Arlington as Nemec is once again teaching a class on “Acting in Film & TV as an Extra.”
A key to becoming a solid background actor?
“Be professional,” Nemec said. And that holds true even if one is doing the gig for free. “This is a job,” said Nemec, “and you are there to work, be on time, wait, listen and follow directions.”
A few real no-no’s that Nemec, “40-plus” age-wise in Hollywood casting-speak, sees far too often from extras on a set include: people complaining, talking to other actors, taking pictures and telling the crew what to do.
The Alexandria resident has taught the “extra” class since 2003, and she speaks from her time as a background actor in the critically acclaimed TV shows “Homicide,” “The Wire” and “The West Wing,” as well as the movies “Contact,” “National Treasure 1,” and the soon-to-be released Clint Eastwood-directed flick “J. Edgar.”
“The goal of a background actor is not to be ‘seen,’” said Nemec, who’ll teach her next class at Vienna’s University of North America on Oct. 12, “but to enhance a scene.”
Whether someone works on a small or big production, the extra experience gives people an opportunity to learn firsthand about how movies and TV shows are made, network with others, and, at times, make some money. Extra day rates vary in the Washington, D.C., area, and much of that depends on a production’s budget, but a nonunion extra’s pay generally ranges from zero to $100. For union types it is around $135 for eight hours.
Jimmy Sanabria, director of student activities at Centreville High School, took Nemec’s summer class to do something out of the ordinary and to discover more about acting. The course aced both for Sanabria. “I learned a lot in the class: Be ready for a long day, pay attention to what is happening on set, have some fun, but always be professional.”
Sanabria has acted in small local productions before, but looks to do more on-camera work. “It depends on the opportunity,” he said.
McLean’s Kristen Hansen, meanwhile, developed a “much better appreciation for filmmaking” through Nemec’s class.
“It is not easy being an extra,” said Hansen, who does public relations work for nonprofit companies. “A lot about being an extra is not being noticed,” she said.
Hansen said Nemec’s class was helpful.
“Gale is a great teacher. She made it fun and she made me laugh when she re-enacted what not to do,” as in over-gesturing, unless directed to do so.
“The class is well-structured,” said Helga Kelter of Alexandria, another summer class attendee. As extras, Kelter said, “We are wallpaper, or the pictures on the wallpaper.” One of the biggest surprises for Kelter and others in the class was that extras generally don’t speak when the cameras are rolling. “I never thought about it before,” said the retired mediator, “but it makes perfect sense.”
And not only is “silence” a significant word of the trade for extras, it is more difficult than it sounds to try and act out a scene where you are supposed to pretend you are speaking with people, but many of the natural give-and-take parts of normal in-person conversation are not present. To compensate, one tends to over-gesture and nod a great deal. “You shouldn’t overact,” Kelter said.
Richard Fiske took the class in 2007. Since then, the Alexandria resident has appeared in two Hollywood flicks as an extra (“Body of Lies” and “My One and Only”). Fiske, a full-time lawyer, also has appeared in local stage productions.
“I took the class to do something fun and different,” Fiske said. “It was absolutely worthwhile. The class allowed me to understand the vocabulary, who is who, procedures and what is expected of me,” he said. “When I went on set there were no surprises.”
Fiske noted that Nemec’s course also gave him confidence for auditions. “This is not a lark; it’s a job, a professional way,” he said.
And, as Nemec noted, “Any job doing is worth doing well, as it’s supposed to be done — that’s why I teach the class and do the work.”
Casting agent Terry Jones, owner of TJ Talent in Falls Church, said Nemec’s class is a “must-see.” “It is a great way for people to get experience and learn the ropes.” Jones added that local thespians of all levels could benefit from joining the Actors’ Center in Washington. “The Actors’ Center is an excellent organization for networking, audition information, I highly recommend it.”
Perhaps one of Nemec’s students summed it up best when he said, “The class gives a whole new meaning to the direction, ‘Quiet on the set!’” You can say that again — or at least mouth the words.